Thursday, September 29, 2005

Poverty Thought Experiment

I was raised to believe that poverty was the fault of the poor. The purpose of the teaching wasn't to teach contempt for the poor, but to put fear into the young. After all, the underlying message in this teaching was that *I* would be the one living in poverty if I didn't get my ass into gear. After all, I am only two generations removed from extreme poverty, and have first cousins that could charitably be described as "poor white trash".

Now that I am older I still agree with this assessment for 90% of the poor. As George Will wrote recently and was discussed on some of the major sites, there are only a few simple things people have to do to avoid poverty. As quoted on Wizbang:
"...three not-at-all recondite rules for avoiding poverty: Graduate from high school, don't have a baby until you are married, don't marry while you are a teenager. Among people who obey those rules, poverty is minimal."

Other commentators have added a fourth rule: don't get hooked on alcohol or drugs.
I would add: get as much education as possible, in addition to graduate from high school. These won't give you a mansion on the beach, but they'll put a roof over your head and food on the table.

But sometimes I have wondered, could I climb out of "poverty" today if I started over with nothing? It's sort of like the question: how long could you survive if you were dropped naked into the middle of the jungle? So here is my thought experiment (gedanken) which could also be a reality TV show:

  • I am dropped in the middle of a random city with only the clothes on my back and $10 in my pocket.

  • I could not use family, friends, contacts or anyone else who knew me for help, references, money or any other means of support. I was to be starting 100% from scratch, having just fallen out of the sky.

  • I could not have access to any assets whatsoever. I would have no credit, but I would also have no bad credit. Assume I got assigned a brand new social security number with no baggage good or bad attached to it; a clean slate.

  • I could not allude to or say I had any education beyond what is free to everyone living in the U.S. today: a high-school diploma.

So starting completely from scratch and only $10 in my pocket, where would I be in one year?

My answer is this: I would not be poor. I would not be homeless. I would not be on government assistance. Sure, my standard of living might be pretty darn low, but I would not be some welfare case sitting around waiting for the government to "do something" about poverty. Within ten years I think I could be back in the middle class, and eventually climb back up to where I am today.

And if you think this scenario is far fetched, it is almost exactly the situation Mrs. Director's grandparents were in when they stepped off a boat into this country in 1950. Except they had more education they could point to, but with the trade off being they didn't speak the language.

Mrs. Director's grandfather died a rich man.

Where would you be in a year? If your answer is "not poor", then whose fault is it for people who are poor?

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